Black Sunday Review

Horror is a much maligned genre - and in many instances justifiably so - but the power of the best horror films to elicit the purest of visceral reactions is one of the most effective weapons in the genre's arsenal. Often, such reactions are provoked via the tactics of shock, yet as the years pass, the effectiveness of the shock is diminished and diluted, thanks to an unfortunate combination of the ravages of time, and word of mouth, spoiling the secrets which can cause such delightfully unsettling emotions.

When Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio/The Mask of Satan) bled darkly onto cinema screens in 1960, it's difficult - and darkly compelling - to imagine how audiences must have felt during the terrifying opening five minutes of Mario Bava's astonishing directorial debut. It's not even flirting with exaggeration to suggest that these first few minutes of monochrome sixties horror unleash a scene which is so powerful that it pales the colour of many of its modern-day counterparts. Yet like all high quality shocks - and those who carve out cheap horror thrills, take note - the hammerblow (both in literal terms, and metaphorical) unleashed by this opening segment of Bava black magic carries a substantial impact thanks to the impressive quality of its construction. Although Bava was finding his feet during the early stages of his career, the poise and sinister grace with which this terrifying sequence is captured is something which would seldom be matched throughout the remainder of the horror expert's career.

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Indeed, sixties horror audiences had little to prepare them for the shocks - particularly that of the opening sequence - which would pummel their senses as Bava's carefully crafted horror yarn unwound before them. Britain's Hammer studios were conquering the world with their brand of polished and dignified gothic horror (albeit building upon the original epochal titles made so successfully in the thirties by Universal Studios), with titles such as Dracula (1958), The Mummy, and The Revenge of Frankenstein (both 1959). Indeed, it proved a golden age for the studio, especially when considering their waning output in the following decade. And the critics had been bashing them for some time by this point, having already singled out the wonderful, genre-shaping The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, with one periodical describing the film as 'depressing and degrading for anyone who loves the cinema'. Black Sunday, an Italian film brought to America by American International Pictures - curiously and contrastingly - proved rather popular with the critics, who rightly - and perhaps surprisingly, for the period - managed to see beyond the banal plot and shallow characterisations, and praised the rich atmosphere of the cinematography. Even so, Bava's film is so much more shocking, subversive, and outrageous than any of the Hammer films of the period that it can only have left a substantial mental impact on anyone who was fortunate enough to catch it during its initial release, and to my mind, the film - despite its critical acclaim - remains to this day a much underrated release from a golden age of horror. It would only be later in the decade that horror as a genre would really accelerate its dark progress to psychologically disturbing levels, with gloriously mind-blowing headbenders such as Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), and Romero's The Night of the Living Dead, although Hitchcock had hammered a firm stake into the ground early in the decade too with the colossus which is Psycho (1960).

Of course, it's not simply the subversive and shocking nature of Bava's masterpiece which makes it such a core component of any horror fan's historical fabric, and it's interesting to place his directorial debut into the context of horror film history. By 1960, Bava was already an accomplished cameraman, and a co-director (and cinematographer) of the absorbing and inventive but commercially lukewarm 1956 horror I, Vampiri (itself a visually stunning presentation, and a film which - unlike much of the Italian horror cinema to follow it - was remarkably non-derivative). He had also picked up directorial duties mid-shoot on two other films, including The Giant of Marathon in 1959, taking over the reigns from the great Jacques Tourneur, and Caltiki - The Undying Monster, also in 1959. He was then offered a golden opportunity by producer Lionello Santi; to direct any film he wished, as long as it was within budgetary boundaries. The end result was a black and white masterpiece which gracefully straddles the decades preceding and following it; some of the most chillingly atmospheric scenes and their visual execution recall the gloomy horror of F.W. Murnau's wonderful Nosferatu (1921), whereas the progressive shock elements predate some of the most exhilarating entries into Italian cinema, including the sophisticated visual constructions of Argento's works such as the less obvious The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), and the pure horror of Suspiria (1976). Whilst it's not obvious at a casual level how such entries derive influence from Bava's gothically stylised picture, the key component surrounds his expert manipulation of the viewer's senses and emotions by controlling the visual elements of his film, whilst relegating the plot (one which is loosely - and irrelevantly - based upon Gogol's The Vij) and the script to an almost arbitrary function. By exerting such a powerful grip on the gloriously atmospheric and shocking visuals, Black Sunday demonstrates how an immensely visceral experience can be delivered with a plot which becomes perfunctory at best. After a virgin viewing of Black Sunday, one is unlikely to remember the minutiae of the storyline, or the subtleties of the script, but the scale of the gothic scenery and the profound level of the crafted shocks will linger long after. American International Pictures certainly deemed the film capable of delivering a shock or two, opting to edit the opening scene in such a way as to dampen some of the more graphic imagery, and also muffling some of the other shocks later in the film, and the typically sensitive UK censors went one step further, banning the film in its entirety until much later in the decade in 1968. Incredibly, even after its 1968 release, an entirely unexpurgated version of this black and white gothic horror was not available in Britain until 1992.

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Despite the liberal sprinkles of influences, Black Sunday doesn't always hit the target in its efforts to carve out a broad appeal, and in doing so, highlights some of the (retrospectively) perennial problems with Italian horror cinema, even at its most premium level. Perhaps most acutely felt in this regard is Bava's efforts to generate some human appeal with the depiction of a 'romance' between Gorovek and Princess Katia. This relationship is handled clumsily on many levels; not only is its visual construction one which is bereft of any credible spark between the two characters, but also the script and the management of the 'unfolding' (if one can be so elaborate in describing it) of their relationship is entirely without authenticity, and we are left cold to what is intended to act as a glimmer of warmth in this often harsh film. Gorovek's longing for the Princess seems entirely arbitrary other than the most basic drivers of aesthetics and lust, with the poor sap showing a pained yet shallow yearning before knowing anything about the Princess other than her striking appearance. Bizarrely, if anything, this failure in depicting a credible romance between the two characters merely heightens the sensation of desolation and bleakness in Bava's gloomy, haunted underworld; his constructed nightmare is afforded more credence as positive human emotions fail to find a foothold in the deceptive landscape.

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The fact that the actors have to wrestle with a pedestrian storyline and perfunctory script perhaps hints at why some of the performances are slightly below par, with the characters delivering lines which are derivative yet inferior to other comparable gothic horrors of the period, and the passing of time has done little to soften the viewer's reaction to these. Yet some performers are still able to shine amongst these constraints, and it's particularly notable that Black Sunday launched the iconic horror career of the beautiful Barbara Steele. Whilst her delivery - like some of the other performers - is often overly dramatic, her substantial visual presence, especially in the striking contrast of the black and white cinematography, is something that one would struggle to imagine from many of her peers. In this light, it's somewhat depressing to observe that Bava wouldn't work with the actress again, with rumours of the actress habitually arriving late to set. For all that, Steele appears to recount her experiences with Bava with some fondness, and given that Black Sunday leaves such an impression in the timeline of horror film history, it should perhaps be cherished that the only Bava/Steele pairing should have been such an enormously successful one.

The performances are acceptable, the script is functional, and the plot is little more than a vehicle to drive us from one visual experience to the next, yet Mario Bava's directorial debut is little short of astonishing in its power to evoke a profoundly visceral response. To this end, it remains - alongside films such as Argento's masterpiece, Suspiria - one of the best examples of 'pure' horror you can experience, and even though over fifty years have passed since its original bloody release, its power to shock, and to gloomily delight, remains.

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The Disc

It's fascinating to witness the continued evolution of Arrow. They have had their fair share of detractors, and I have also questioned some of their approaches to marketing their products (in particular, the garish 'retro' cover art). Yet for some time now, they have followed a course of continuous improvement which has resulted in releases of such quality as the recent Zombie Flesh Eaters Blu-ray, which featured a stunning transfer from the highly respected James White.

And whilst Arrow may not have been fortunate enough to have James White presiding over this transfer, Black Sunday nevertheless continues this focus on quality with a superb transfer of Bava's 1960 masterpiece, resulting in an image which is extremely impressive. This definitive Blu-ray and DVD combi release includes both major versions of the film. Purists will revel in the European version, The Mask of Satan (La Maschera del Demonio), featuring the original soundtrack by Roberto Nicolosi, and providing an unflinching presentation of Bava's film. The other version is, of course, Black Sunday, the AIP cut of the film as released by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, who had discovered the film whilst in Rome scouting for partner presentations on their double-bill releases. The AIP version of the film is essential for the purposes of completeness, but it proves unsatisfactory thanks to its shedding of the more challenging violence and horror, and the loss of Nicolosi's musical score in favour of Les Baxter's inferior alternative.

The film, arriving via a region B BD50 Blu-ray and two DVDs, is presented in 1080p on the Blu-ray (and in standard definition on the DVD), using an aspect ratio of 1.69:1. The ambitious scale of Bava's atmospherics is represented in absorbing style with an image which is surprisingly clean given the age of the film, without any over-processing lending the picture an artificial appearance. Certainly, despite the clarity of the presentation, the film is still allowed to breathe and retains a level of grain which ensures an authentic and credible appearance. Even dark scenes are rarely problematic, with the blacks proving extremely solid, and the level of accuracy ensuring that this gothic masterpiece is visually absorbing throughout.

Subtitles are included in English, and there is a new English subtitle for the Italian audio.

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Audio

Arrow have included three audio options here; Italian, European English, and American English for the AIP edition. The sound reproduction showcases a good deal of clarity and minimal distortion, but you should bear in mind that the LPCM 2.0 mono delivery will demonstrate little in the way of bass or high end treble, with much of the sound dominating the middle range. Naturally, this is inevitable given the age of the film, but higher end sound systems will highlight the deficiencies in the source material, and at higher volumes the audio will sound a little harsh on the ears.

For all that, Arrow have still delivered a high quality audio accompaniment to Bava's masterpiece, with a focus on quality which matches the rest of this impressive package.

Extras

At first glance, the allocation of extras here may look slightly lighter than some of Arrow's other big releases, but don't be fooled; this range of supplementary material is of a particularly high standard, and Arrow again deserve credit for the effort they have made in ensuring you receive the best possible value from this package.

There is one Commentary soundtrack here, with Tim Lucas providing his thoughts and analysis of the film as a Mario Bava expert and biographer. There are many factors which could have potentially counted against this Lucas commentary; his thoughts are delivered alone, without the ebb and flow of a conversation with a second commentator, his rather routine vocal delivery seems initially flat and uninspiring, and one could almost be forgiven for thinking that Lucas is reading out a Mario Bava essay, as opposed to an accompaniment to one of his films. However, Lucas proves himself an extremely knowledgeable source, and he provides one of the most detailed and informative commentaries I've come across. His knowledge of even the most obscure minutiae of the film's history and his analysis of different scenes would make this package worth the asking price alone, even without other extras.

There are other extras, though; so don't panic. An Introduction by Alan Jones features the established horror commentator contributing a piece which is actually somewhat fuller bodied than you might expect from an introduction. Indeed, Jones' slot plays almost like a mini-documentary, with the commentator placing the film neatly within an historical context not only in terms of filmmaking, but also in a political sense. It's perhaps a shame that this was not filmed as a wider documentary, as Jones is certainly an engaging commentator, and from his highly respected vantage point, a longer piece would have been warmly received, rather than a segment which falls frustratingly between an introduction and a longer analysis.

An Interview with Barbara Steele from some time ago makes for unusual but not unpleasing viewing. For starters, Steele speaks in Italian whilst discussing the film and her role, with subtitles presented in English, which, whilst not a problem, is somewhat unexpected. She mentions the 'powerful' opening scene of Bava's black masterpiece, and critiques her lack of energy during this gruesome sequence.

A Deleted Scene segment presents an admittedly superfluous scene from the film featuring Steele looking typically melancholy as Princess Katia at the foot of a grand outdoor staircase, whilst her father expresses his concern at her demeanour. The presentation here though once again demonstrates Arrow's current commitment to quality as the deleted scene is accompanied by detailed on-screen text from Tim Lucas. The deleted scene is apparently only found in Italian prints of the film, and never made it as far as the AIP version.

There are three Trailers included on this release; an International Trailer, a slightly worse for wear US Trailer, and an Italian Trailer, which appears to be structurally identical and only differentiated by the Italian language and words on the screen. A 22 second TV Spot is also included.

Even if the extras haul were to stop here, this would be a very fine release, but what's most astonishing is that tucked away down towards the end of the extras list (in terms of the menu, at least), is a separate section for the I, Vampiri movie. Yes, that's right, a full one hour and 21 minute copy of the 1956 Riccardo Freda movie which Bava completed for the Italian director after he had walked off set before production was complete. Presented in a high quality print with excellent subtitles, this early Italian horror entry is not only historically fascinating for the Bava enthusiast, but is also an accomplished film which proves engaging even in isolation to its more noteworthy cousin.

What's perhaps most interesting is that whilst I, Vampiri is certainly not as noteworthy a film as Bava's 1960 masterpiece, the earlier film does contrast to the main feature with its improved character construction and depiction of personalities, which prove more dynamic and convincing than some of those featured in Black Sunday. The film proves atmospheric, tense, dramatic, and at times rather distressing. There are some intriguing shades of early giallo which recall, retrospectively speaking, some of the early Argento films, and whilst the film predates Psycho, it does bear something of a stylistic and thematic resemblance. The other notable aspect of I, Vampiri is its depiction of drug abuse and the pathetic nature of the suffering addict, which surely must have proven shocking to the audiences of 1956.

It's intriguing to try to pick out Bava's influence in the film; take the moment as Pierre enters the forest in his car at an hour and three minutes in. The light streaming through the dark forest from the moon and from Pierre's car generates striking atmospherics which, whilst pre-dating Bava's forthcoming work, manage to - from a modern perspective - recall some of the best moments from Black Sunday.

This section also includes a faded Trailer for the film (under its U.S. monicker of The Devil's Commandment), which demonstrates the quality of the print that Arrow have transferred to disc here, and a Mario Bava Trailer Reel. Even 1956 films are not immune from spoilerific trailers, so if you've managed to make it to 2013 without having the ending of this splendid little Italian horror classic revealed to you, avoid watching the hideously revealing trailer before the movie itself.

Note that this release also includes the token Arrow reversible sleeve, and a booklet featuring material from Matt Bailey and Alan Jones.

Overall

With Arrow setting the bar on the visual and audio quality of this transfer, and with the inclusion of a mighty fine collection of extras including Bava's co-directed 1956 entry, I, Vampiri, there is little reason why this excellent release shouldn't be an essential investment for all fans of pure horror.

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Film
9 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
9 out of 10
Overall

TDF SILVER

9

out of 10

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